It's week 10 now, three quarters of the football season is behind us. The Bruins got their motor restarted at home last week despite turning the ball over five times. Now they head by bus, by plane, another plane, and yet another bus (or two) - and who knows, perhaps by dog sled - into the Palouse to take on the Washington State Cougars in the (current) battle to escape the cellar of the Pac 10 conference this year.
The stats for this one aren't pretty, but they nearly all favor the visitors from sunny Los Angeles. The location, however, gives the Cougs their hope, that and the one statistical category in which they lead the Bruins in conference play - Red Zone defense. Not quite sure how that works out, as the Cougs have the Conference's worst defense (and worst offense for that matter), but lead the Pac 10 in Red Zone defense (the Bruins rank 4th).
Other than that, it's all UCLA…but not by enough to allow you to relax on this one. On offense, the Bruins rank ninth in conference, the Cougs 10th. On defense, the Bruins get their one hopefully significant advantage, ranking fifth to the Cougs' 10th. The Bruins once again figure to have a big advantage in the kicking game, both in net yards per kick and in kick and punt returns, but freshman punter Jeff Locke didn't punt as well last weekend as he has in previous games; it will be important that Locke do his job well this weekend.
Kevin Prince et al will be glad to know that WSU is also dead last in sacks recorded as well as sacks allowed. Depending on what the weather does, the running game could come up big in this one. While the Bruins are far better at pass defense (2nd) than rush D (8th), the Cougs are - ready for this? - 10th and last in both categories.
The trip - longest in the Pac 10 - and the weather could well be the young Cougs' biggest allies on today. They are 17.5 point underdogs as we write this, but the Cougs' faithful will be quick to tell you that's the lowest margin they've faced in quite awhile. They are not winless overall having one OOC win this year over SMU. Other than that, it's been quite a struggle for head coach Paul Wulff's second Washington State team.
Moreover, with 6-3 207 pound freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel (58.7% completion rate) having dislocated a knee cap (ouch!) in last week's loss, it's not certain whether or how well Tuel can go on Saturday. If Tuel falters, expect redshirt sophomore signal caller, Marshall Lobbestael (6-3, 206), who has hit on 48.3 percent of passes to play in his place. Lobbestael got extra practice reps this week in preparation.
Perhaps the biggest question about this game - after the Bruins' mindset and mental toughness to get up for lowly Washington State after squeaking by Washington last week to initiate their one-game winning streak will be the state of the Bruins' offensive line. When Micah Kia went down before the season, the O-Line got a whole lot younger in a hurry. When Eddie Williams joined him, it happened again. On a line this young, with limited ready-to-go depth, that was a blow.
However, 295 pound junior college transfer. Ryan Taylor stepped in and played well. Then, this week, Taylor also wound up on the sideline. At this point, with freshman Big Stanley Hasiak not with the team right now, offensive line Coach Bob Palcic's options are pretty limited.
Expect to see Jake Dean to start and Darius Savage get into this game along with senior Nick Ekbatani who will likely sub on both sides of center Kai Maiava. How well the O-Line does opening some holes - and sustaining blocks while not having them deteriorate into holding penalties - could go a long way toward determining the outcome.
The rotation at starting running back will continue this week with 6-0 235 pound sophomore Derrick Coleman getting the start. Last week Coleman did a much better job, for the first time this year, really, running like a big back, focusing on falling forward after being hit. That, combined with previous starter Johnathan Franklin, also known as "Jet Ski" has had fumble problems of late that led to the change, but it is expected that both will get action and "Wildcat" formation running back star Milton Knox as well.
This season has been a lot about the schedule for UCLA. First off, the Bruins caught their first three opponents at the very start of new coaching regimes. Both Kansas State and Tennessee have had their moments as the year has moved along. Then the Bruins hit five very tough games in a row and lost all of them. This stretch might have been somewhat different had starting quarterback Kevin Prince not missed several weeks after having his jaw broken in the Tennessee game as Prince would no doubt have hit his stride a couple games earlier.
It's mostly a matter of experience for Prince who is now playing the way his coaches hoped and expected he would. With the light seemingly coming on for wide receiver Nelson Rosario as well, adding him to the reliable receiving corps including sophomore Taylor Embree, senior Terrence Austin, and tight end seniors Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya, UCLA's passing game has started to give the Bruins a legitimate threat on offense. The question here is how the weather will affect the passing game.
If the Bruins can establish a legitimate threat on the ground, everything should open up and they should be able to control the ball and the game against the Cougs. Washington State, however, knows this and Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow fully expects the Cougars to gear their defense to trying to stop the run. With WSU not having done very well in achieving sacks this year, the way could be open for Prince to make them pay for such a defensive strategy.
The young Bruins may be feeling pretty good about themselves after last week's victory, but they had better understand that their five turnovers transformed a game they could have won going away into a nail-biter that they could very well have lost had it been played on the road.
Having won, however, means that this game, this weekend, becomes the most important of the year to date for UCLA.
A second win would keep them on track to become bowl-eligible, would extend the winning streak to two (can one win really be called a streak??), and would continue the growth of this team as it prepares for what all involved believe will be much bigger and better things in the future.